When I read an article “Town Tries To Prove Ghost Cats” (BDN Sept. 22, 2008) and the more recent “Despite hundreds of sightings, cougar’s status remains in doubt,” (Dec. 4-5 BDN) both about reported cougars sightings where they are believed to be extirpated, I was reminded of an experience I had back in 1984.
I was returning from a walk along the Ducktrap River where it intersects with Route 52 in Lincolnville. Suddenly, I had an overwhelming sense that I was being watched, and immediately, without any conscious thought, the hair on the back of my neck stood on end.
This stimulated an adrenaline response, and my heart rate increased — all in an instinctive preparation for “flight” — from what, whom or why, I did not immediately know. Perhaps a smarter person would have made a beeline for the safety of the nearby car, but back then I was a young and ardent naturalist, and my curiosity won over the instinctive outpouring of hormones that said to flee.
I stopped walking and began turning counter-clockwise, scanning the ground and trees trying to discern what elicited such a strange and powerful reaction. Nearly three-quarters of the way to full circle, I finally saw the reason for my body’s high alert status: Some 500 feet away, on a sand esker across the road about 30 feet above ground level was a cougar! Tawny colored with short fur and oversized feet, it was standing sideways, long tail nearly touching the ground, with its tip curved upward forming the characteristic “j” hook.
Its large head was turned facing me, and eyes like saucers were boring into mine. I stood transfixed, and I’m not sure I could have run if the need arose. Those eyes felt like they held me hypnotized. But in just a few heartbeats, the experience was over. I did not need to flee. The big cat — appearing to weigh about 85 pounds — melted away into the adjacent forest and I never saw it again. The only proof that what I’d seen was not a “ghost cat” was the chattering of red squirrels and birds that reported its progress downstream.
I still marvel at the realization that some primordial sixth sense caused my body to respond to its proximity, and that it did not need to let me see it at all. I never would have been any the wiser if it had disappeared before our eyes met, and the reason for my body’s uncanny response would have remained a mystery!
That was almost 25 years ago, and since then, I have had other, extraordinary and memorable encounters with Maine’s wildlife — but I’ve never again seen another cougar.
In 1987, I began the study of Wildlife Management and Biology at the University of Maine, gaining some of the objectivity that contributes to the school of thought cited by wildlife officials when they are asked to respond to reports of cougar sightings.
Still later, I worked in health care, and I made it a practice to ask those of my patients who had spent the better part of their lives working in the Maine wilderness if they had ever seen any mountain lions, or cats they thought could have been cougars. Many, many men eagerly shared stories of sightings, often with such detail of a singular encounter or of multiple, though infrequent, sightings, that I would be in the room longer than I should have been. Many of these men were first rate outdoorsmen of the highest caliber and integrity, in addition to having been life-long professionals in the Forest Industry.
In all the hours I’ve spent beating around the Maine woods alone, working in the Katahdin and Bigelow Mountain regions for the Maine Caribou Reintroduction Project decades ago, as well as being out just for fun, or being outside to gather the materials that I use in my art and basket work, I’ve never had any other hair-raising experience.
However, that same sequence of flight hormones was elicited twice more that summer in 1984, at night at home by the base of Levenseller Mountain in Searsmont. On two different occasions, we were awakened by the most horrific, blood-curdling woman-like screaming one can imagine — the stuff of horror movie sound effects — and of a volume that exceeded the bob-cat’s mating call capabilities. There was no doubt that some bigger cat was out there on the prowl, and even now, I can remember pulling the windows closed, being glad of locks on the doors, and the company of husband and child, safely separated by the strong walls of our home from what roamed outside in the dark. Logic and reason held no sway to that primordial sense of vulnerability!
And so, despite my education in wildlife biology as well as training and indoctrination into the culture of Maine’s Wildlife Management Practices, I am a believer that the “ghost cats” do sometimes make their presence known here in Maine, as well as in other regions where officials contend they have not been present for more than 100 years.
Maine is a big tract of wilderness, contiguous with other states’ and provinces’ big tracts of wilderness, and there are abundant prey species to sustain these large felines — and cougars can move over substantial territories. An individual may be seen here today, then long gone tomorrow. But in the memories of those who have have the gift of a sighting, they live forever as vivid, albeit fleeting footage that can be replayed in moments of quiet contemplation or stories told in hushed tones laced with wonder.
Kathy Pollard lives in Orono. She studied wildlife management at UMO from 1987-1990, focusing on research and scientific writing, then transferred to the nursing program. She continued to work as a research assistant in the Wildlife Department until 1992, working for the Maine Caribou Reintroduction Project and DIFW to complete a Masters student’s research project on brain worm in moose. After a career in health care, she now is a full-time artist, sculptor and basket maker.